Communicating Science Effectively

My mom, like many parents, is on Facebook and sometimes follows my friends that she knows (or vice-versa). She recently pointed out one of my friend’s profiles to me. This friend is a mother to three children and is very into fitness and health. Some of the things she promotes do not align with my beliefs as a food scientist, however she has a fairly large following. My mom was pointing out how much she liked her social media platform. I rolled by eyes because I become annoyed with the whole “clean eating” and “juice cleanse” fads. However, I had to admit that she was obviously doing something right to have so many individuals seeking advice from her.

After spending some time looking through her social media outlets, I picked up on some characteristics that set her apart from others. She was relatable, she was often vulnerable with her viewers, and her steps to taking action were very simple. Are scientists relatable? No. Are they ever vulnerable to those they are sharing information with? No. Are the items they produce easy for others to understand or implement? No. Well there you go folks. This is why the general public has a difficult time trusting the science world. Of course these are blanket statements, but for the most part I find them to be true.

Even for scientists that desire/have a knack for doing these types of things, there is pushback from their very own. Some scientists don’t believe that anything other than the “hard sciences” is science. And even within the hard sciences, if researchers tend to move more towards qualitative research or engaging with the general public, they can be looked at as doing things of lesser nature.

There is a reason why Mommy Bloggers tend to flourish. Scientists don’t always seem like real people with real lives. Even though “communicating science” is a hot topic and tends to be one that everyone says they support, when it comes down to it, the support isn’t fully there from all sides. I would like to see a shift in more respect and understanding for qualitative research and for initiatives that link scientists and the general public in a more personal way.

I am currently a part of a working group titled “Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience” that works to make science that is related to food more easy to understand. This initiative is supported by some of the faculty members and peers in my department, but I would like to see a much larger group of scientists beginning to understand the crucial need for connecting with consumers.

Facebook: Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience

Twitter: DontEatPseudo


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Why It’s Time for Faculty Teaching Reviews to Change

The way in which teaching faculty are evaluated is very faulty. Universities do typically implement different types of evaluation, however the way that these evaluations are conducted may not be effective.

Now that it is the end of the semester, I am continuously getting notifications to fill out the Student Perspectives of Teaching (SPOT) evaluations for each course. Although some professors may encourage students to fill them out, students typically receive no incentive for completing them. The SPOT reminders begin to come out right when a student is at the busiest part of their semester, which is another barrier. I would say that students usually only fill them out if they feel strongly (one way or another) towards a course or its instructor. If there were things that the instructor did that a student did not like, it is the one time when the student gets to voice their opinion, although it sometimes may turn into more of a venting session rather than providing the instructor with constructive criticism.

I believe that SPOT evaluations would be more beneficial if the professor incorporated them into their syllabus (I have one professor that does this) so that the students see that it is a professor’s priority and so that they know when to expect them. Students will be even more likely to fill it out if there is some sort of incentive like extra credit points. However, this may be difficult to track since the form is anonymous.

One of my professors recently told me that because he will have one student saying his class was the worst class he/she has ever taken, while he will also get a SPOT saying his class was the best class another student has ever taken, he doesn’t really take them to heart. Whether a professor incorporates the feedback into future teaching is solely up to them. I’ve known professors to make changes in regards to many different aspects of their teaching, while some have said it didn’t matter how many negative reviews they received, they would still move forward with teaching the same way they have always taught.

Peer teaching reviews for instructors also have their shortcomings. Instructors in my department typically review one another. The issue with this is that professors obviously do not want to create any sort of conflict with the individuals they work with on a regular basis. Therefore, this could cause reviewers to not fully be honest in their reviews.

There are also few instructors that have been trained in teaching to begin with. It may not be the best idea to ask someone to be a reviewer if they have no knowledge or experience related to pedagogical practices. One of my suggestions would be to utilize teaching faculty from other departments and/or to have more faculty trained in teaching methods.


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Student Athletes: Set up for Failure or Success?

Student athletes tend to have many responsibilities in addition to the academic obligations that all college students already face. I have known student athletes to have mandatory weight lifting and running at 6 o’clock in the morning in order for the team to meet at a time that would not interfere with classes. Oftentimes practices are held every day for multiple hours each day. During the sporting season, students tend to experience heavy travel for games, keeping them away from school for several days. So how does a student athlete maintain good grades if they don’t have the time to dedicate to academics?

Colleges tend to provide student athletes with various resources to assist with the balance between their sporting careers versus their academic careers. Because only a very small number of collegiate players end up playing a sport professionally, it is essential that they are also prepared for a life outside of sports. Virginia Tech has a resource titled the Student Athlete Academic Support Services (SASS). These services provide student athletes with tutors, studying assistance, and academic skill development programs (1). Each sports team is assigned a single academic counselor that can work with them both as a whole and to meet individual needs (1).

There is however a debate as to whether colleges help student athletes too much. I vividly remember choosing to sit next to one of my friends in an undergraduate math class. We were told that where we sat the first day would be where we would remain sitting for the duration of the class. This friend happened to be a soccer player for the school. Let’s just say I got to sit next to her about three times the entire semester and instead got to sit next to her note-taker each week.


An example of academic assistance gone very wrong is the University of North Carolina (UNC) athletics scandal. Being a North Carolina native, I was in a UNC system college when this event unraveled. For almost two decades, student athletes were encouraged to take classes that did not meet in person and only required one assignment (2). Students were given a good grade despite how they actually performed on the assignment (2). Today it is estimated that this scandal has cost the university about 18 million dollars in legal costs (2).



What is your opinion on how student athletes are prepared academically?






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Are We Teaching Students How to Teach?

One of the reasons why I chose Virginia Tech for a PhD is because of its emphasis on teaching. Many universities boast of teaching as one of its missions, however not all universities actually prepare students to teach. I applied to one university’s Preparing the Future Professoriate program and attended the information session. During this session, the leaders described how students could not co-teach or teach a class outside of the discipline associated with their degree. This bothered me in the way in which these individuals did not even want to take into consideration a scenario where an interdisciplinary student may want to assist a member of their committee whom may not be in the same department as them. I find this to not be very common, but it most definitely happens sometimes. This program also wanted students to have already finished their qualifying exam before being admitted to the program.

Within the application, students were asked to describe their teaching philosophy. I found this to be an interesting question for students that had not yet been accepted into the program. Shouldn’t the program help a student form a teaching philosophy? Considering that there are not that many opportunities for students to teach to begin with, I believe so. The application also wanted to know about teaching awards and accolades related to the named teaching mentor. To clarify, the students had to choose their teaching mentor based upon the instructor of the course they wanted to teach. I disagree with this requirement because a teaching mentor should not have to be someone associated with the course itself. Of course the student will have to work with the instructor to develop materials for the course, however, another instructor may be able to assist with course design, activities, and evaluating student teaching.

Virginia Tech’s Graduate Teaching Scholar program provides a cohesive experience that begins right when a PhD student begins classes and lasts throughout the duration of their degree. I feel strongly that teaching programs should be set up in this way so that students can be fully prepared to take on a course themselves. Each cohort spends two-three years together, taking a course each semester to assist with teaching and course material preparation.


Although many graduate students serve as teaching assistants, these roles are often merely to assist with demonstrations and grading. The teaching assistant rarely helps to develop or deliver course materials. However, if graduate students are not actually being trained to teach, then how will they know how to do it?


I think some of the questions we need to ask are: 1) is higher education training graduate students to teach effectively? And 2) is higher education doing so in a way that makes sense to address the variability of student needs?


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Open Access Comes with a Price

Off the top of my head, I was not familiar with any open access journals related to food safety as my current lab group and previous lab group would only choose specific journals for its students to submit to. In my personal opinion, I would say that these journals, the Journal of Food Protection and Food Protection Trends, are seen as more elite journals because they are not open access.

After doing some research, I found that some food safety journals allow articles to remain open to the public if the author is willing to pay a fee. Food Control is a food safety journal that I have at least heard of that encompasses this trend of allowing open access articles for payment (1). It is the journal of the European Federation of Food Science and Technology (EFFoST) and the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST) (1). Food Control names itself as “an international journal that provides essential information for those involved in food safety and process control” naming areas such as risk assessment, quality assurance, consumer issues, and many more (1). When I looked up the open access fee, I was shocked. The price is $3,300, excluding taxes (1). What a statement to make! Open access is possible in some legitimate journals, but it comes with a price.

To find a legitimate food safety journal with complete open access was not as easy. The Journal of Food: Microbiology, Safety & Hygiene highlights topics such as food preservation, foodborne diseases, and food handling and is run by OMICS International (2). To illustrate the inadequacy of this journal, I will add that the “aims and scopes” link did not even work. It boasts of open access at the top of its home page, claiming that these types of journals are gaining more readers and citations (2). However, even the website design reflects that it is so very different from the food safety journals that are not open access.

Although I find it to be crucial, there are still many issues with open access. At least in the field of food science/food safety, journals that are considered reputable are typically not open access journals. I hope that there is a push for researchers to at least have the option to publish articles in a way that is accessible to everyone, especially as consumers are continuously becoming more interested in information regarding the foods that they eat.





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Top Hat – the new and improved clicker

When I was completing my undergraduate degree, the “clicker” was often used in large lecture halls. Students would be required to purchase a clicker online or at the school bookstore, but it could then be used for multiple classes and during each semester. Implementing clickers in the classroom was a way to take attendance in classes of a few hundred students, when otherwise taking attendance probably wouldn’t be possible. Clickers were also used as a means of reviewing questions where students could click in and contribute to the larger answer poll. Sometimes answering clicker questions earned a student points towards their grade as an incentive to come to class and to take a serious attempt at the questions being asked. However, there were also many downsides to using the clickers within the classroom. If students forgot their clickers, they wouldn’t receive the attendance/participation points for that day. This would cause an unwanted increased amount of communication between the students and the professor, as this was a frequent occurrence. The usage of clickers also created an environment where cheating was easy: students could have others bring their clickers to class to receive participation points when they did not attend.

Recently, my department has begun to integrate Top Hat into the undergraduate classroom setting. Top Hat has multiple features, but the professors within my department are concentrating on the lecture component of the app (1). Students are able to purchase the app so that they can follow along the lecture materials on either their phones or computers. Students may also answer questions or take quizzes via their phones. Top Hat has proven to have both pros and cons related to its usage within the classroom but has shown a lot of promise with over two million student users (2).

I would say with confidence that in this day in age students are more likely to bring their cellphones to class rather than remembering to bring an extra item like a clicker. This also minimizes cheating because students are less likely to have a friend bring their phone to class to receive attendance/participation points. Top Hat questions can be used as a means of breaking up long lectures or transitioning into new topics. It can also be used to review for exams. A few professors within my own department are using it as a way to administer quizzes during class time too.

Professors must allow students to bring their phones to class since the app can be accessed via phone. Because students must be ready to answer questions at any time, they must also have their phones readily available. This can distract students to use their phones for other activities as well, especially if it is being kept nearby. There is also the chance that students will forget their phone and therefore not be able to participate in class. Top Hat also comes with a cost; students must pay about $20 per semester for the app. My department is still in the beginning stages of learning whether this technology is something that will be continued throughout future semesters.